Credit: THORCC BY 2.0

In “Closing Comments Alters Your Purpose,” I discussed how the existence of comments on your website informs the purpose of your website. This was inspired by Evan Hamilton, who was in turn commenting on an article by Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post.

While Petri’s article was interesting and raises some good points, I really feel like Petri’s representation both ignores community as a profession and undervalues the relationship that a writer can have with the people who consume their work. That doesn’t mean I think comments should be everywhere or that everyone needs them. I don’t.

But the article begins with this aggressive condemnation of comments as a whole (emphasis mine):

Never read the comments.

This is one of those phrases that people who write on the Internet — especially Women Who Write on the Internet — can safely tattoo somewhere prominent. It is a truth you can bind as a seal on your hand. Once the article ends, there is a line like the line on old maps: Here Be Monsters. Venture beyond at your own risk.

Later on, Petri says that it simply isn’t worth the effort it takes to have a productive comments section.

I know there are exceptions and caveats. If you really put the effort into tending your comments garden, you can produce a forum where people disagree without being disagreeable, but that takes a kind of constant pruning and vigilance that is really not feasible if you are also posting stories multiple times daily. …

If you really care enough to put effort into anything, you can create something great. It applies to writing an article, and it applies to moderating comments. But if you think moderation is just something you do a few minutes here and that is the effort you put into it, you get what you get.

I believe that the relationship between a writer and the people who comment on their work can be improved by moderation – or, more specifically, the separation of the writer from the moderation. I want to be clear that I am talking about well-read publications that have many full time employees and resources to allocate. Not blogs with a writer or two (like this one).

Being a Writer Doesn’t Make You a Good Moderator

Moderation is not easy. There are people who do it that are bad at it. This includes some writers who moderate their own comments. Just because you are a great writer or a smart person does not mean that you are a particularly good moderator. It’s important to realize that being a moderator is a profession of its own deserving of respect, just like being a writer. Certainly, it can be a full time job.

In addition, it can be hard to moderate comments on your own writing. Trust me, I know. I get comments here sometimes where I know the person is just trying to push my buttons or disagree with me to draw attention to themselves. I spent weeks writing this article and here’s this guy tearing it apart for no good reason. It stinks. When it is your work, it’s harder to moderate than if it were someone else’s work. When writers are forced to view comments as a moderator, rather than as a participant, the relationship changes. You aren’t just having a conversation, you are now the enforcer of conversation standards.

It’s Not Reasonable for Publications to Expect Full Time Writers to Moderate

If writing is a full time job and moderation is a full time job, then clearly a writer cannot do both. If that happens, what you have is a part-time writer and a part-time moderator. Which can work, as long as you don’t pretend the arrangement is something else and they are good at both roles. It’s not reasonable to expect a  full time writer to also moderate an active comments section. It is reasonable for a publication to hire moderators and employ technology to help create a comments section you can be proud of.

If you have many full time employees, including a good-sized writing staff, but you don’t have a community person or a moderator on your team, you should be adding one. Do not continue to hire writers, do not continue to shuffle community to whoever has a few minutes. Make it a priority.

“But we don’t have the resources.” Well, if you have 8 writers and you are about to hire number 9, why can’t you instead hire community person number 1? You need to start building that department. If you can’t do that, you are demonstrating how you value interaction with your readers. Let me put it this way: if you can afford 10 writers and 0 moderators or 8 writers and 2 moderators, go for the latter.

Writers Can’t (and Maybe Shouldn’t) Read All Comments; Show Them the Good Ones

If you are a writer and your work receives hundreds or thousands of comments every week, you probably can’t read all of those comments. I’m not even sure they should. It’s worthwhile for writers to dip into the comments, but it’s not healthy to read what everyone in the world feels about your work and existence. And yet writer/commenter interaction can be a beautiful thing that can help readers feel appreciated and create great, meaningful content for your publication.

For that reason, as part of your moderation team’s work and the commenting system you use, I would make it possible for your moderator(s) to flag really great comments for writers to read and consider responding to. Comments that add value, that ask great questions, etc. That way, you are helping writers to cut through the noise and also showing them that there are good comments out there. This helps them from getting caught up in the vile stuff, which moderators are well equipped to handle and not personally involved in.

You Have to Want It

It’s not impossible. And it doesn’t take endless resources. It’s just a matter of making it a commitment. I used to host a review show on YouTube. Currently it has around 330,000 views, 3,500 subscribers and 8,000 comments. YouTube comments have a deserved reputation. They are that bad! But when I started the show, I decided that my channel wouldn’t be like that. I’ve had people that look at my comments section and are surprised at how people are so nice and polite and how different it is from YouTube as a whole.

How did that happen? Well, it wasn’t magic. It was because I wanted it. I have received plenty of nasty comments. So many slurs. So many people telling me how stupid I am (to put it kindly). I even had a popular Reddit subreddit start a thread about how awful my channel was. But I decided my comment section would be different and it was. How would I have scaled it if I had more comments? I’m not sure. Maybe my approach would change. Maybe it wouldn’t. But even with my tiny resources (me, already stretched time wise), I still managed to do it without a whole lot of bother.

Imagine what you can do when you make it a priority. Some people will read this and think it’s not worth it. I’m saying it can be. A great comments section creates a more engaged readership. This post isn’t about money or revenue, but more engaged readers and more time spent on your site are both good things. Or you can turn comments off. It’s a legitimate option. But if you’ve never dedicated real resources to the task, you can’t just blame comments in general.